Friday, March 15, 2013

Organizing+Education+Service+Policy = Profound and Lasting Change

Posted by Kim Klein

The Christian Science Monitor of Feb 25, 2013 has an article titled, “US Domestic Violence Falls:  It’s down 64% between 1994 and 2010.”  I read this article with great interest because I started my fundraising career in the domestic violence movement.

I was a seminary student in 1976 and had to do a field placement as part of my studies.  I did it at La Casa de las Madres  which was (and remains) the domestic violence program serving the county of San Francisco, CA.  They had just opened a shelter which was the first in California and the fifth to open in the United States.   We were then called the “battered women’s movement” which started in England when Erin Pizzey and others opened the first shelter  in Chiswick in 1970.  The first shelter in the USA opened in St. Paul, MN in 1973 and the movement got quite a bit of publicity when Erin Pizzey published the groundbreaking, “Scream Quietly or the Neighbors Will Hear” in 1974. 

La Casa was in a large funky house and  was chaotic and badly run.  (La Casa moved a few times when the address of the shelter would become too well known, but I mostly worked in one location.)  I would arrive for my shift and be told we didn’t have enough food for the residents for whatever the next meal was and I needed to find some free food fast.  Having no idea how to do that, I would go from church to church to see if they had food in their pantries they could give us.  Thus dinner might be all kidney beans and ketchup or breakfast might be apple juice and canned spaghetti.  We always seemed to have a lot of kids and they actually liked the food but it was not nutritious or well balanced.  

The women we were sheltering were, of course, traumatized and sometimes took it out on each other or their kids.  Kids were spanked or yelled out way out of proportion to their offense. The women themselves occasionally came to blows.   The shelter workers (like me) had little training and at age 23, little in the way of experience to bring to bear on the situation.   

While others tried to figure out how to actually manage the shelter,  I  started raising money from churches and synagogues, then from individuals.   Fundraising took me away from the day to day work of domestic violence, and I watched as this feminist movement transformed into a social work discipline.   I didn’t go into any shelters for many years, and then in the last ten years, I have toured several and been amazed by them.  Well furnished, lovely kitchens, childcare spaces, and sometimes even play equipment in yards!   Trained social workers and counselors know what to do.  It is a far cry from where we started.   Second stage housing, job training, anger management workshops, and so much more is now de riguer in domestic violence work.

In reading the article referenced above, I feel some pride.  I was one of thousands of people who helped start this.  We can document, finally, that we have less domestic violence than we used to.  Organizing and fundraising played a big role.  But also research on the nature of this kind of violence including the twin realizations that men were sometimes battered by women and that violence amongst gay and lesbian couples was not uncommon, led from “battered women”  to  the current and more accurate “intimate partner violence” or IPV.

From the 1970’s to the early 1990’s, IPV did not go down.  Some years it went up, reflecting mostly that people were reporting it more often and that it was becoming much less tolerated by everyone in the community.  However the incidence of domestic violence began its slow trajectory downwards in 1994, which is the year Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).  Joan Meier, professor of clinical law at George Washington University says , “I am willing to speculate that VAWA had a direct impact on reducing violence.”  VAWA was a federally funded approach to domestic violence which particularly took into account the role of law enforcement in dealing with this issue.  It provided sensitivity trainings for police, funded  legal services for victims, and encouraged states to adopt mandatory arrest laws.  The latter are controversial in their impact but the fact is that we wouldn’t be able to know what is good and what is problematic about mandatory arrest if we didn’t have 22 states requiring it. 

What does this have to do with the commons?  To me, it is an example of a small movement that became a bigger movement that become a social service and an academic area of research, and by being all those things, many times all at once, became a force for advocating that the government of the country do one of its most important jobs which is to protect the residents  from violence.  Only large federally funded programs can really address these kinds of problems and hope to make lasting change.  (It is ironic that VAWA ‘s reauthorization was opposed by 130 Republicans, but this is proof we still have work to do!)  If we continue to have the progress we have had since 1994, we could see an end to domestic violence in the next two generations.  And that would be a major step toward rough social equity and a commons based society.  

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